Our emotions are a paradoxical lot. Sometimes our emotional state seems to be the most authentic experience of who we are. And sometimes emotions seem to fall on us like bad weather. Sometimes they seem proportional and appropriate to the situation, and sometimes they seem randomly irrational and oddly amplified. Experiences that are accompanied by strong emotion have more impact and are remembered more clearly and for a longer period. It is as if our emotions change neutral experience into resonating moments. We honor our emotions as representative of some core reality of ourselves, and we are impatient with them when they are not what we want or how we want to feel. Like unruly children, they seem to be partly under our control and partly not, but always our responsibility to regulate.
We observe how we feel using our thinking mind, and we evaluate whether our feelings make sense or are over-reactions. We try to avoid the bad feelings: anger, resentment, grief or fear, and we try to make choices that lead to the good feelings: curiosity, joy, and love. We mask our emotions in the service of preserving our relationships, all the while wondering if we are hiding our true selves.
Cognitive therapists often operate under the assumption that our thoughts create our feelings. In other words, we have raw experience, we interpret that experience, and then we have a feeling in response to that understanding. However, some studies have shown that first we have a feeling and then we generate reasons for it. There is a sense in which we believe we are creating our feelings and a sense in which we believe they happen to us. Other studies have shown that if we pretend we are having a feeling, including creating the facial expression, the feeling will follow, suggesting that our physical experience generates emotions.
Feelings matter. They create an experience of connection to the world, they alert us to places where we need to pay attention, and they impact the choices we make and the behaviors we enact. We cannot develop a true intimacy with ourselves if we do not respect our own emotional states and reactions to the world. The trick, it seems to me, is valuing our feelings without over-valuing them. While our feelings form an important texture in our lives, focusing on how we are feeling, trying to get the feelings we want to have and avoid those we don’t want to have, and seeing our emotions as some kind of ultimate representation of who we are will keep us chasing short-term gratifications and prevent us from taking a stand on our deeper ideals.
There is tremendous value in reflecting on how we are feeling and why, in coming to understand the complex bases for our emotional changes. Our emotions are central to our feeling of being ourselves in the world. And this process of reflecting and comparing our feelings and our ideals is an important way we shape our lives. It leads us in the direction of bringing our choices more and more in line with the larger picture—with the choices we truly want to be making based on what we think is important. Ultimately, as we think about our lives, we will not be saying, “I made myself really happy,” so much as we will be saying, “I stuck to what I think matters.”